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Wilde and Morality

Peter Benson deconstructs the moral intrigues of Dorian Gray.

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”
Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest

One of the most famous and most frequently quoted statements about the moral responsibility of artists can be found in Oscar Wilde ’s preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” writes Wilde, “Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” His claim is that works of art are legitimate objects of aesthetic judgement, but not of moral judgement.

Wilde added this preface when the novel was reprinted a year after its initial publication in a literary magazine. The preface was Wilde’s considered response to various reviewers who had found his book to be immoral. The extent of this antagonism should not be exaggerated. Only a few reviewers had condemned the novel in these terms, and there was never any serious campaign for it to be banned.

Wilde also replied separately, by letter, to each of the magazines and newspapers which had published these condemnatory reviews. These letters were collected together after his death and republished in a little volume entitled Art and Morality. (Today, they can be found more easily in the collected edition of Wilde’s correspondence.) It is worth our while to read and compare the various arguments he puts forward.

He makes his first statement of the principle later enunciated in his preface in his letter to The St. James’s Gazette: “The sphere of art and the sphere of ethics are absolutely distinct and separate.” However in a second letter to the same magazine he makes the surprising claim that “The public… will find that [Dorian Gray] is a story with a moral. And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment. ”

The Daily Chronicle had been even more condemnatory, describing Wilde’s novel as “a poisonous book…. heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” To this Wilde replied: “My story is poisonous if you like, but you cannot deny that it is also perfect.”

If we compare these three responses, we see that in his first letter to the Gazette Wilde claims that Dorian Gray has no moral significance; in his second letter he says that it is a story with an admirable moral; and in his letter to the Chronicle, he says that the book is immoral but artistically perfect. Hence we have three contrasting assertions, all made by Wilde:

Thesis I: The book is amoral.

Thesis II: The book is moral.

Thesis III: The book is immoral.

Kettle Logic

This line of argument might remind us of the famous joke quoted by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams: “A man was charged by one of his neighbours with having given him back a borrowed kettle in a damaged condition. The defendant asserted first, that he had given it back undamaged; secondly, that the kettle had a hole in it when he borrowed it; and thirdly, that he had never borrowed a kettle from his neighbour at all. ” Any of these defences might be valid on its own, but together they cancel each other out. Freud used this joke to exemplify the way that the unconscious mind is able to ignore logical contradictions.

You might be familiar with this kind of reasoning, as it is found repeatedly in the stories of Frank Richards, the creator of that archetypal greedy schoolboy Billy Bunter: “I say, you chaps, it wasn’t me who ate your chocolate cake; and if it was, you said I could have it; and if you didn’t, you never had a chocolate cake in the first place!”

Freud called such arguments ‘Kettle Logic’, in honour of the joke he’d used to illustrate them. So we need to ask if Wilde is simply indulging in kettle logic in replying to his critics, or if any of his arguments have validity, and if so, which ones.

Some of his other remarks in these defensive letters to magazines may help us to find a way out of this maze of contradictions. In his reply to The Scots Observer Wilde states: “An artist has no ethical sympathies at all. Virtue and wickedness are to him simply what the colours on his palette are to the painter. ” He adds, “If a work of art is rich and vital and complete, those who have artistic instincts will see its beauty, and those to whom ethics appeal more strongly than aesthetics will see its moral lesson. ” However, “If a man sees the artistic beauty of a thing, he will probably care very little for its ethical import. ”

Here, Wilde is asserting, not only that the spheres of art and morality are distinct, but that there is a hierarchy between them. When anyone learns to perceive aesthetically, ethics will seem of less importance. Moral values are simply among the materials which an artist may use to create aesthetic effects, along with other elements.

It is perhaps not surprising that such views should have caused a degree of alarm at the time. But Wilde does not deny the importance of moral rules in daily life. “It is proper that limitation should be placed on actions,” he wrote to The St James’s Gazette, adding, “It is not proper that limitations should be placed on art.”

Dorian Gray

To explore the possible validity of these views, let us turn to the novel itself. The story of The Picture of Dorian Gray is well known. Dorian, a handsome young man, has his portrait painted by Basil Hallward, a skilful artist, who also fatefully introduces him to Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry is clever, witty, elegant, and speaks in a torrent of paradoxical epigrams. In him we can recognize an idealized self-portrait of Wilde himself. Dorian, by contrast, is not particularly bright, and is dazzled by Lord Henry’s philosophising, with its gleeful inversions of moral norms (eg “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”). He becomes enamoured of this hedonistic philosophy of life.

At a later point in the story Lord Henry lends Dorian a book – an unnamed French novel which can be recognized by its description as J. K. Huysmans ’ Against Nature. Often regarded as the ‘Bible’ of French fin-de-siècle literature, this book was published six years before Dorian Gray, in which it is several times described as ‘poisonous’ (the very epithet the reviewer of The Daily Chronicle would use about Wilde’s own novel). Dorian himself, at the very end of his life, claims to have been ‘poisoned’ by Huysmans’ book, to which Lord Henry replies, “Art has no influence on action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile.” This repeats Wilde’s claim of the separation of morality – relevant to the sphere of ‘action’ – from art. Yet Dorian has, in fact, lived a considerable portion of his life in conscious imitation of the mode of life described in Against Nature, devoted to the savouring of sensations. And the chapter of Dorian Gray which follows the fatal gift of this book is written in an appreciative pastiche of Huysmans ’ style.

So the themes discussed in the preface and debated between Wilde and his critics were already fully present in the novel itself. Let us consider the various ways in which each of the three theses can be found manifested in the novel.

Lord Henry himself had expressed Thesis I of the kettle argument: that Art does not affect Life, and so has no moral significance. By this stage of the novel however, Lord Henry is growing increasingly oblivious of the dark and sordid realities of Dorian ’s life. He refuses to believe that Dorian could be capable of murder, on the grounds that “All crime is vulgar.” Yet Dorian has already killed Basil, and cunningly disposed of his corpse.

When Dorian was first allowing his image to be captured on canvas by Basil, he was simultaneously listening to the seductive paradoxes of Lord Henry. These already began to alter his ways of thinking, long before he read Against Nature. He starts to adopt a manner of speaking which is clearly imitative of Lord Henry (without ever achieving the brilliance of his model). So, while the painted canvas captures Dorian’s image, he is himself recreating his personality in the image of Lord Henry.

The famous supernatural premise of the story, which has made it a classic of the gothic macabre, is that the painting will show the moral and physical decay of Dorian while Dorian remains as fresh-faced as when its pigments were still wet. Hence, even to understand the novel in an intelligent manner, the reader must bring to it some fairly ordinary moral assumptions. Unless one thinks that murdering Basil was wrong, one would not be able to understand why the painting, as the manifestation of Dorian ’s soul, should become even more hideous after this event.

Therefore in contrast to statements made by characters within it, the story of the book seems to exemplify Thesis II of Wilde’s kettle logic: Dorian Gray is, indeed, a moral tale. Dorian, steeped in crime, finally comes to a bad end. The conventional moral norms which any reader can be expected to bring to their reading of the book are necessary to the enjoyment of the story ’s formal perfection. The book does not induce these moral norms in the reader, but assumes they are already present and makes use of them in the same way that a painter makes use of the colours on his palette –the comparison made by Wilde himself. Thus his book performs an alchemical process whereby the reader’s moral norms are transmuted into aesthetic delight. So even Thesis II (that the tale is moral) subordinates ethics, as a means, to aesthetic ends.

Nevertheless, the story has a greater moral complexity than this would suggest. It implicitly raises the question of Lord Henry’s own moral responsibility for Dorian’s actions, which have been inspired by his words and by his loan of Huysmans’ book. If we see Lord Henry as a self-portrait of Wilde, this raises the further issue of a writer ’s responsibility for misunderstandings of his works. Lord Henry was clearly not expecting Dorian to become a murderer –but perhaps he took insufficient account of Dorian’s lower intellectual level and his less artistic temperament, both of which lead him towards the field of action rather than contemplation. Dorian is finally punished for the crimes he has committed, but the book leaves Lord Henry unpunished, suspending judgement on his words and behaviour.

Seduction and Betrayal

At the end of his life Dorian encounters a situation of unexpected moral complexity. This seems to be a principal precipitant of his suicidal attack on the painting (bringing about his own death). In this incident we will find embodied the last of the three theses of Wilde’s kettle logic.

In the main body of the book, the allusions to Dorian’s immoral activities are vague, thus inviting the readers to fill out these foggy, indeterminate references to veiled corruption with their own sordid fantasies. Hence, in his reply to The Scots Observer, Wilde can say with some accuracy: “Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray. What Dorian Gray’s sins are no-one knows. He who finds them has brought them.” This would perhaps be sufficient to absolve the book of any morally corrupting force, since any tempting images of immoral acts would be brought to the text by the reader, not placed in their thoughts by the writer.

However, at least three of Dorian’s morally significant actions are described in some detail, the central such act being his murder of Basil Hallward. No conceivable coherent moral scheme could condone such an act, and Dorian’s subsequent attempts to dismiss it from his mind are notable failures. This marks the lowest point of his slide into evil. It is necessary for the sake of the story that Dorian now be regarded by any reader as corrupt – a fact made visible in the painting, whose hands now drip red with blood. Wilde has chosen to describe an action of which no possible civilised reader could approve. This is another example of Wilde using morality as one of the colours on his palette in creating his artwork.

The murder precipitates the final phase of Dorian’s life. Much earlier, however, the first steps in his relentless glide into corruption were also marked by a death. Dorian was the unwitting but culpable cause of Sybil Vane’s suicide. After becoming engaged to her, enchanted by her talents as an actress, he cruelly rejects her when she begins to prefer real life to the fictional world of the stage. Sybil’s development from fantasy to reality is in an opposite direction to Dorian’s –who therefore no longer desires her.

The most shocking aspect of Dorian’s subsequent reactions (even disturbing the constitutionally blasé Lord Henry) is his refusal to feel either responsibility or regret for what has happened. His attempt to pursue a hedonistic philosophy takes a deeply unsympathetic turn here. We can assume that Wilde would be conscious of his reader’s likely revulsion.

In so far as hedonism is itself a moral doctrine, which is eloquently expounded by Lord Henry, the novel cannot be said to endorse such a doctrine. The philosophy of hedonism becomes an element in the story’s content (a colour on the palette) rather than a message it seeks to deliver. The effect of this philosophy on Dorian is far from attractive –but at the same time, its exposition by Lord Henry is deeply beguiling.

In anthologies of quotations, Lord Henry’s aphorisms are often attributed directly to Wilde himself. They are, indeed, the beliefs commonly associated with Wilde as the high priest of fin-de-siècle decadence. Yet, for the sake of his art, Wilde is willing to give these beliefs a questionable air, to place them between inverted commas, both literally and metaphorically. Here too, art uses moral ideas as its material, not its purpose.

At the end of the novel, increasingly unsettled by remorse for his murder of Basil, Dorian again deserts a young woman whom he has caused to fall in love with him. This time, however, he claims that his reasons for this action are of the highest moral asceticism. He has now decided to change his way of life, to reverse his descent into evil. Therefore he decides not to corrupt this innocent girl by continuing to associate with her. Yet we are left in considerable doubt as to the result of his desertion of her. Might she too not kill herself, as did Sybil Vane? The last image we are given of her – “her white face at the window, like a spray of jasmine” –suggest her considerable hurt and pain, at the very least.

There is therefore no real distinction between Dorian’s first serious immoral act, and the first act which he hopes will restore him to the path of virtue. They are perfect reflections of each other. It is in the face of this cruel and daunting paradox that Dorian stabs the haunted painting in despair, and dies. The picture and the man exchange characteristics once again, and his servants find Dorian ’s aged body corroded by vice, while the portrait is restored to its pristine beauty. With the exquisite symmetry of this conclusion the novel ends, revealing itself as a dazzling play of mirrors. Its final moments therefore embody Thesis III of the kettle logic: a formal artistic perfection is created out of a morally poisonous paradox (the paradox being that the very same act – of deserting a woman –can be indistinguishably moral or immoral).

This final flourish may indeed prompt ruminations on the part of the reader about the nature of morality, suggesting an ethical agnosticism which the rest of the novel keeps at bay. But this moral paradox, like all the others, is utilized in the service of art. Strictly speaking, consideration of its ethical import lies outside the frame of the novel. Beauty is restored to the work of art even as the man receives the ugly stigmata of his corruption. Art has toyed with moral danger, played with ethical paradoxes, and brought about an aesthetic triumph out of Dorian ’s moral defeat.


So, to return to the question with which I began: is it true, as Wilde declared, that “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book”? His own novel demonstrates that this is a rhetorical exaggeration. A book can have immoral effects (as Huysmans’ novel does on Dorian) but only when it is read, not for its beauty, through aesthetic spectacles, but as if it were a guide to life. And a book can contain moral and immoral acts and statements which, when they become a part of the novel ’s aesthetic pattern, shed their moral force as they contribute to the book’s aesthetic qualities (aesthetic qualities which are to be contemplated, rather than taken as a model for one’s existence).

A novel therefore is not moral or immoral in itself (only a human being could be moral or immoral in themself, not an artefact such as a book), but only in the way it is read. And a book can be read in various ways. Wilde’s apparently contradictory statements, forming a clashing ‘Kettle Logic’, in fact distinguish between different ways of reading, and different readers. In a paradox which Wilde himself would have appreciated, it is the aesthetic reader rather than the moralistic reader whose approach to the text purifies it, defusing in advance any possible immoral effect it might otherwise have. To be a decadent aesthete, therefore, is to preserve oneself from moral stain.

© Peter Benson 2008

Peter Benson lives in London and works in a library.


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